Telegraph sale will test Ofcom

“Never, never, never, never, never”. Such, after a long pause, was the vehemence of Lord Black’s reaction to a suggestion, at lunch a few months ago, that he might sell the Telegraph to Richard Desmond, proprietor of the Express titles.

Alas, as we dramatically learnt this week, Black’s language has become a seriously debased currency. The awful prospect of an unsolicited cross-mailing for Asian Babes may well be looming for apoplectic of Tunbridge Wells.

Not, of course, that a sale of any kind is a foregone conclusion – yet. All we definitely know so far is that Black has stepped down from the day-to-day management of the Telegraph’s holding company Hollinger, and that a few of his cronies have resigned as well. Another victory, perhaps, for the corporate governance “zealots” detested by Black – but far from the crushing one desired by their protagonist, Tweedy Browne.

It is rival newspapers, and a City greedy for telephone number takeover fees, which are beating up the “For Sale” story. Is their glee premature and misplaced? The suddenness of Black’s climbdown on the management and non-compete fees issue, plus his uncharacteristic humility in doing so, suggests much more may come out. At very least, he faces a highly personal version of Bleak House, with a vista of shareholder litigation stretching down the years. Which sheds doubt on any pretence to managing Hollinger’s “strategy” over the long term.

So who could benefit from a sale of the Telegraph and how might it affect the national newspaper environment? The spread-betting odds are on a trade rather than financial sale, and specifically Associated Newspapers and Express Newspapers – though there are all sorts of wildcards (for instance EMAP) as well. On paper Desmond’s chances look good, personal animosity with Black aside. This is because he has pre-emptive rights over the sale of the West Ferry printing plant, which gives him inside leverage over the price. If Desmond is the buyer, the package comes pretty much less the cost of printing; conversely, if anyone else is the buyer, they are likely to find the Telegraph’s printing bill a lot more prohibitive.

But newspaper sales are notoriously opaque, rarely relying on purely commercial criteria. Everyone, right up to the Prime Minister, seems to have a say. Specifically, there is the Competition Commission to worry about. Most interesting of all, a Telegraph takeover would test and help to define the powers and independence of newly-vested Ofcom. At this level, issues such as “accurate presentation of news and free expression of opinion” become important. Would the judgement of such issues favour a left-leaning pornographer whose &£100,000 donation was deemed unfit to swell Labour election coffers; or the more wholesome Associated, with its proven investment record, but virulently anti-Blairite line? It’s an interesting hot potato, perhaps best left at the side of the plate while picking over alternative fare.

Torin Douglas, page 17

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